What We Talk about When We Talk about Love by Raymond Carver
In What We Talk about When We Talk about Love by Raymond Carver we have the theme of love and the difficulties that can come with trying to define (through language) what love is. Taken from his collection of the same name the story is narrated in the first person by a man called Nick and it is through his observations that the reader discovers how difficult it is to define what love is. The setting for the story is also important as it is during the main discussion (of what love is) that the reader realises how confined (or in the dark) the characters in the story are. Their restriction or confinement in the kitchen in many ways mirrors the restrictions or inadequacies of language to define what love is. On several occasions in the story Carver highlights to the reader the difficulty or inadequacies of language. There is the obvious example of Mel’s inability to define love despite on several occasions trying. Also Mel’s misuse of the word ‘vessels’ when he really means to say ‘vassals’, is also important. As again it suggests the difficulties of language. Despite both words being close in both pronunciation and spelling, they mean two different things.
There is also a lot of symbolism in the story. There is the fact that Mel is a cardiologist (heart doctor). This is significant as it brings a sense of irony into the story. Love would commonly be referred to as an affair of the heart and despite his attempts to understand what love is Mel at the end of the story is none the wiser in figuring out the elusive nature of love. He remains unsure for certain as to what love really is. Carver also uses symbolism to further suggest the difficulties in expressing a meaning or feeling when Terri tries to describe the restaurant and the food in the restaurant. She is unable to do so, all she knows is that it looks good from the outside. Though some critics might suggest that the difficulties incurred by Terri in describing the restaurant are due to the fact that she is drinking (and possibly drunk).
There is further symbolism in the story which may also be important. Carver appears to use alcohol to highlight the flow of conversation. When the bottle of gin is full the conversation is flowing but by the end when Mel spills his glass, a signal that there is no more gin, it also signals the end of the conversation. This could be important as it may be an example of Carver using alcohol as a rhythmic device throughout the story. It might also be a case that Mel (and Terri) have difficulty discussing past relationships without the aid of alcohol, using the alcohol to numb how they really feel. It is also possible that Carver is using light in the story as symbolism. At the beginning of the story the reader learns that the kitchen is filled with sunlight. Carver may be using the symbolism of light to suggest a clarity. However this sense of clarity fades later in the story just as the light fades in the kitchen and it becomes dark. Though it may also be a case that the loss of clarity may be caused by the fact that each character is drinking and if anything their thought processes are becoming clouded.
What is also interesting about the story is that despite Nick having no opinions on the matter (of what love is) and Laura remaining relatively quiet both do demonstrate the physical side of love by holding hands and touching each other’s legs underneath the table. It is also through Mel that the reader gets an insight into the extremities of love (or at least as perceived by Mel). Mel tells the reader that despite having once loved his ex-wife, he no longer either loves her or likes her. This dislike for his ex-wife is triggered by the fact that he has to pay her alimony. Also Mel tells the reader about Terri’s first husband, Ed. Even though he beat Terri, Ed told Terri he was doing so because he loved her. Also when she divorced him Ed used to stalk Mel and Terri and eventually because he couldn’t handle the breakdown of the marriage shot himself. Again this suggests the extremities of love, which in turn make it even more difficult to define what love is. For many readers Ed would have acted outside the commonly accepted boundaries of love.
Carver ends the story with symbolism too. Despite Terri suggesting she has some cheese and crackers she never actually gets up off the chair to get them for Laura. This lack of action (or resolving the fact that Laura is hungry) mirrors the inability of the characters to resolve or define what love is. It is also significant at the end of the story that Carver writes that Nick could ‘hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart.’ This is important because it again brings in the element of irony to the story. Love (as mentioned previously) is usually described as an affair of the heart yet at the end of the story none of the characters are any wiser, despite Nick hearing his and the others hearts beat. It might also be important that the final sound in the story is Nick hearing everybody’s heart. It highlights that they are not only alive but that they may very well be in love with their respective partners yet remain unable to describe or put into words their love. The fact that the story closes with the word dark (night has set in) is also significant as the darkness of the night mirrors the darkness that the characters are in regards defining what love is.